07/22/2009 11:45AM

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Del Mar opens for its 70th season by the sea this afternoon, a run interrupted only by World War II when for about three years the track was used for a variety of military purposes. And that's all the nostalgia you're getting out of me, at least this time around, because these days, more than anything else, Del Mar is all about what's next.

Del Mar used to enjoy calling itself the Saratoga of the West. That was back when folks in California knew Saratoga from Delaware Park. Now, for all but the hopelessly homesick, Saratoga has been pretty much reduced for Californians to a series of rain-swept August images on a satellite betting feed, a boat floating in a lake and horses being saddled under very large trees. The trees are nice.

In truth, Del Mar offers no easy comparisons. It has evolved into a model impossible to duplicate. Its property, leased from the state, is protected from the rollercoaster real estate market (ignore the silly idea that the Gubernator wants to put the land up for sale to help save his budget). The structure of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club requires no pandering to stockholders. Its meet of just seven weeks is brief enough so that any business downturns are far from disastrous. And the beachy, health-crazed environment distracts both visiting fans and participants from their normal routines back home. As a racing institution Del Mar is a place other places can never be.

What Del Mar needs to become, sooner than later, is nothing less than the Santa Anita of the South. Playtime is over. The looming closure of Hollywood Park will open the California racing calendar to a revolutionary realignment. Del Mar's place in that new alignment can be one of major significance, or it could completely cede power to whoever buys Santa Anita and tuck itself safely into its own little corner, raising its head only to wonder aloud, "Who wants another margarita?"

What would happen, though, if California horse racing awoke on Jan. 1, 2011, or even 2012, to a landscape that looked like this:

Jan. 1 through Memorial Day - Santa Anita Park runs four days a week.

Mid-June through Labor Day - Del Mar runs five days a week.

Mid-September though Thanksgiving weekend - Oak Tree Racing Association at Santa Anita runs four days a week.

December - no live major Thoroughbred racing in Southern California. It's Christmas, for Pete's sakes.

Add to this equation a Del Mar that would remain open for training year-round. Turn the place into a 12-month operation geared toward the encouragement of participation and investment in the sport. Other than the abused and abandoned Hialeah, Del Mar is the most under-utilized asset in the business. Those days need to end.

Yes, it will be difficult. Del Mar's dates are squeezed on both sides by traditional California fairs with powerful political clout. Del Mar's nominal landlord is an agricultural association, and the facility finds itself playing host to any number of gun shows and boat shows and flower shows in addition to the annual Del Mar Fair. Well, fine. They can keep their gun shows - have them in March, when hunting season starts (I'm just guessing here) - and the boats and flowers, too. But make horse racing the core product.

The management of Del Mar knows how to run a boutique meet, but they sometimes suffer needless glitches from too little practice. Sitting dormant for 45 weeks a year is a way to get rusty fast. A much longer meet and year-round training presence would take care of that.

Furthermore, one of the most encouraging aspects of Del Mar is a board of directors packed with brilliantly successful businessman who also just happen to love horse racing, men like Terrence Lanni, Jon Kelly and Marty Wygod. It might be time to take those big dogs off the lease and let them hunt for a new way to be Del Mar.

RDC More than 1 year ago
....and just keep the politicians away! Here in Ohio, the state slots plan for the seven race tracks - three Thoroughbred - allows them to abandon live racing once licensed for VLT's. If additional racing dates at Del Mar means more meddling by politicians...trust me...it won't be worth the hassles.
Steve T. More than 1 year ago
Del Mar is Wal-MArt? Well this post certainly attracted all the lunatic New Yorkers... Like always you ignore the topic at hand and start on the Saratoga is Mecca crap, please. Time for a California perspective: The fact is that Saratoga has become a broken down scrap heap in the middle of a mud bog (Aqueduct with trees). I heard they might even get ONE turf race off this year. To even mention the decrepit Saratoga track in the same sentence as Del Mar is laughable. Delaware is a better track than Saratoga. Your continuing ignorant smugness and air of superiority is tiring. Go worship at your Easy Goer altar and chant "It was all Pat Day's fault, it was all Pat Day's fault". One word describes NY racing, O-V-E-R-R-A-T-E-D!!!
Eileen More than 1 year ago
Del Mar, I can live without. I stopped wagering on Del Mar the year the dirt track was a landmine for breakdowns and I have no intention of ever handicapping any race at Del Mar. This year Del Mar had a fatal breakdown prior to opening day. Why was there not one horse ambulance on track? Opening day saw the fatal breakdown of Mi Rey and Bejarano injured. July 24th Mullins trained I Want My Money broke down near the wire. July 26th the Mitchell trained Insider broke down. Three breakdowns in five days of racing,and the training fatality of Mad In Plaid July 19th. Racing officials need to investigate these and all breakdowns and start weeding out the parties responsible for the over use of medications which I believe are a contributing factor to breakdowns.
Octave-the-Rave More than 1 year ago
"... I'd have to say that any man who thinks Saratoga is naught but rain storms and tall trees would drink champagne through a straw." Bruce Friday Yo, Binky McFadden, THIS is how you tell a journalist his opinion is drivel! And, J-Dey, on this one B-Day is right. On the bright side, I can see where trying to suck the strawberry through the straw might be a hoot. Altogether, boys and girls: To-ga, To-ga ...
Brian Russell More than 1 year ago
You make several good points but comparing Del Mar to Saratoga is a joke. Saratoga does not have a steady stream of maiden $12,500's and $16,000 claimers. The quality of racing is not even close.
old man More than 1 year ago
Mr. Hovdey, add another twist in that DM and Oak Tree rotate dates so the Breeders' Cup can go seaside when it is given to a CA track. DM could have a minimeet like Gulfstream does. I think also to cease racing for the season after BCup, Cal Cup (late Oct or ealry Nov.). Fire up SA on its date of the 26th.
tljd More than 1 year ago
Been to both places and think they're great. Certainly better horse flesh at Saratoga, but to much rain and way to many New Yorkers.
Rufus More than 1 year ago
Wrong wrong wrong. Go ahead and extend the Del Mar meet -- if you want to doom its success. A limited meet is critical to creating buzz in a community and bringing out new and old fans. It seems worthy of attention, a must-do -- something you better soak up while it lasts. Frankly, Del Mar is already wearing thin by the time they run the last race after Labor Day. Spread it out even more like peanut butter and you'll lose the cachet, because the product isn't that appealing -- the small package is. And June Gloom is no time to open a meet. California needs less racing, not more of the same.
Ivan Bigg More than 1 year ago
I'm with Jess Jackson who calls Cal surfaces "plastic." Poly saddens my heart and robs my pocketbook. California racing is second-rate until it goes au naturel.
Looziana guy More than 1 year ago
Saratoga is a racing institution, but if you want to see the best racing on a daily basis at any given meet, then you need to be in Lexington in October.